We originally thought we’d take a few days to drive The Savannah Way in North Queensland – and it would just be a few days of transit driving, stopping only for food and sleep.
It’s worth spending a few minutes stopping at one of the many wide, dry river banks and contemplating what it must look like during the wet season when it’s completely full of water – and then some.
Imagining that water breaking the banks and rising up like the 1974 floods.
It will blow your mind. You just can’t imagine how it can go from bone dry to flooding with enough water to provide the needs of Australia and then some.
But that is this amazing Gulf country in northern Australia.
The Savannah Way Drive
We were kind of chuffed to be travelling along The Savannah Way with our own little Savannah. We named her Savannah for two reasons: because we love the city in America, and because we love the African Savannah – a wild place.
Now she gets to meet her namesake in Australia, except this Savannah is filled with kangaroos and emus instead of man-eating lions.
There’s plenty of things here that will kill you though from snakes, to crocodiles, and poisonous plants, so keep your wits about yourself.
The Savannah Way is the ultimate road trip in Australia, stretching from Cairns in Queensland to Broome in Western Australia. That’s from East to West for those who don’t know, taking in a whopping 3,700 km.
The majority of the svannah Way is sealed road, but there are sections that turn to gravel and plenty of tributaries offering that wild off-road driving experience. Our Ford Territory is an all-wheel-drive and not built for the hard-core 4wd section so we took the alternative routes.
Cairns to the Northern Territory Border
Below is our suggested guide and places to visit along the Queensland section of the drive from Cairns to the Northern Territory border. Just reverse it if you’re coming from the opposite direction.
The Atherton Tablelands
We stayed for two nights in Atherton, and depending on your interests this is enough time to see the highlights. It’s a beautiful region that varies from agricultural farmlands, to ancient rainforest with stunning waterfalls and scrub land.
For a list of highlights check out our post Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
Places to stop on the drive from Atherton to Undara Lava Tubes
Ravenshoe is the highest town in Queensland and worth a pit stop if having a drink in Queensland’s highest pub is your thing. Otherwise, there’s not much else to see,
Stop in at the Innot Hot Springs. Don’t expect to see any springs on a grand scale like Rotorua in New Zealand. It’s actually more of a small puddle, lol. But, it’s nice for sitting and really hot.
Undara Lava Tubes
What a fascinating discovery Undara was! Here you will find the world’s longest lava tubes a phenomena I knew nothing about until coming here. Plan to spend two nights so you can make the most out of what’s on offer.
Do the Archway Explorer Tour and have a bush brekkie. You can set up your caravan or camper trailer, or how about sleeping in an old railway carriage.
Read more – Visiting the Undara Lava Tubes
Drive from Undara to Cobbold Gorge
Stop at Mt Surprise along the way. Grab a burger – like they used to be before they were ruined – at the BP cafe.
Fuel up at Georgetown before taking the unsealed 80km road to Cobbold. Pulling our Jayco Camper Trailer took us about 90 minutes for this section.
The scenery is true outback gorgeousness with the red dirt, blue skies, huge termite mounds and scrub trees. I’d so love to see it in the wet when the greenery comes out.
Yet another special place on the Savannah Gulf. We stayed at Cobbold Gorge for one night, you might like to rest a while – it’s peaceful enough with plenty to keep you entertained, and the infinity pool has amazing views.
The only way to explore this narrow gorge is on a three-hour tour, which takes you on a boat trip through the gorge and a short walk up the escarpment.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about the area and the Savannah Gulf and so passionate about it. It was easy to fall in love with it too.
She shared many stories about the flora and fauna, took us to some beautiful view points and told stories about the early settlers and the mysterious death of pioneer John Corbett.
Drive to Normanton
There’s not much in between here and Normanton so be prepared for a drive of about 4 1/2 hours.
We arrived in the afternoon and stayed for a night at the Albion Hotel so we could arrive early in the morning for our Gulflander experience. Don’t expect too much comfort here but the barra & chips for dinner in the pub restaurant was enjoyable.
Normanton town is basically a refueling stop, although you can stick your head inside a replica of one of the largest crocs ever caught, Krys the croc, who measured a whopping 8.5 metres.
The Gulflander Experience
Train enthusiasts will love this experience on the historic and legendary Gulflander.
Originally built to connect the once bustling river port of Normanton with the rich gold fields of Croydon, today the Gulflander is a tourism icon and working tribute to the early pioneers of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
We experienced the “Billy tea and damper” excursion to Critters Camp located at the picturesque 11-mile camp. The three-hour journey is filled with anecdotes, facts, fascinating trivia and information about the history of the Gulflander, the Savannah Gulf landscape and it’s rich past.
It was one of the best billy and damper teas I’ve experienced on this road trip so far.
Cost: $61 adult $37 child
If you love fishing or stunning sunsets then Karumba, only an hour’s drive from Normanton, is worth a visit.
It’s a very chilled beach town, but remember no swimming in the beach here – this is croc territory!
Grab a drink, and some takeaway fish and chips from Ash’s across the road and sit on the beach and watch the sky light up in flames as it goes down. There’s also a sunset tavern should you wish for tables and chairs and a more formal dinner.
We stayed in a unit at Ash’s on the Point for two nights. Sunset Caravan Park is just down the road.
Fishing is the thing to do here and many people get stuck here for months spending their mornings bringing in the catch for the day – or perhaps for the week.
Like our friend Emma who returned with six blue salmon and a beaming smile.
Drive from Karumba to Gregory River
There are two ways you can go here. The unsealed road via Burketown, or the sealed road via the Burke and Wills Roadhouse. We found the Burke and Wills disappointing and just a fuel stop and a place to stretch the legs and grab a quick bite to eat.
The drive on the sealed road takes about four and a half hours and takes you through pretty outback scenery. This was the first time we’d seen emus in the wild and the Big Red kangaroos.
Camp at Gregory River
This is one of those moments where the difference between wet and dry water levels will blow your mind.
You can free camp on the dry river banks of the Gregory River. Look up several metres into the paperback trees and see the debris of branches stuck above so you know how high this river gets.
The little fast flowing stream next to your campsite leaves no clues.
Except those related to fun.
Grab your tube, or boogie boards and jump in and allow the stream to take you for a ride. Watch the sharp turning corners – odds are you’ll end up in the pandanus bushes on the other side. Kick yourself off though, don’t grab them as you could slice up your hands.
This outback oasis is a little piece of serenity and a definite place to kick back for a day or two and converse with the trees.
There’s a small pub a short walk back up the hill that does meals, cold beer and fuel.
Drive from Gregory River to Adels Grove
Next up was a relatively short drive of 90km from Gregory River to Adels Grove, which feels like it’s just around the corner for Outback standards.
Lots of open road and blue sky to take in here.
For those wanting a little more civilization and facilities, you can either camp at Adels Grove or stay in furnished river tents or rooms.
There is a beautiful creek and natural swimming hole beside the shady camp sites, or a more secluded camping spot out the back. A two-course meal and buffet breakfast is on offer at the restaurant.
From Adels, you have easy access to the amazing Boodjamulla National Park via a 10km unsealed road.
Camping at Adels starts at $34 and Dinner, bed and breakfast packages start at $270.
Boodjamulla National Park / Lawn Hill Gorge
Boodjamulla National Park has been one of the most delightful finds on our Australian road trip so far. How had we never heard of this magical oasis in the middle of the Queensland Outback?
Walt Disney could not have designed it any better.
Emerald colour water so clear you can see the fallen logs and big fish swimming by. If you’re lucky you might even spot a freshwater croc. No salties here, which means swimming is okay.
And what incredible kayaking and swimming there is on offer – gushing waterfalls and overhanging ferns and palm trees. It offers so much more with beautiful bush and gorge walks to take it all in. Don’t miss the Upper Gorge lookout walk.
From Boodjamulla, we took the drive to the Northern Territory border with a stop off at Camooweal pub for some lunch.
All up from Cairns to Boodjamulla we drove 1,786km along The Savannah Way and enjoyed every minute of it, well almost, I don’t think you’ll find us back in Normanton anytime soon, but it’s definitely one of our road trip highlights of our trip around Australia so far.
For more information on driving The Savannah Way and other drives in Outback Queensland visit DriveNorthQueensland.com.au.
Have you driven The Savannah Way?
Please share any thoughts in the comments below!